The Department of Health and Human Services has accepted the medical opinion that contraception is a preventive health measure. That otherwise unremarkable decision obliged health care plans to cover contraception (pills mostly) even if the insurance is offered by religiously affiliated not-for-profit organizations whose doctrine prohibits contraception.
A previous column defined this is an important issue because of the extensive government funding of Catholic Charities. Both the Catholic left and right have delivered (predictable) opinions on the HHS policy. Using a theological perspective, David DeCosse urges reconsideration whether Catholic conscience ought to be defined exclusively as “obedience to the bishops” or if instead Catholic America should use “practical reason.” DeCosse’s thoughtfulness contrasts with the strident denunciation of President Obama for “contempt for religious liberty.”
There are really two issues: 1) the government’s right to control tax-payers’ money and 2) believers’ freedom to follow church doctrines.
Moreover, birth control pills are not the only issue: When the state requires recognition of married same sex couples, it entangles Catholic foster-child services; and state mandated counseling about an abortion option be presented to rape victims goes against the Catholic ban on ALL abortions. And other faiths have different doctrines against blood transfusions and drinking caffeine; in favor of smoking pot and wearing veils. What are the obligation of the state when making grants to religious agencies?
A bit of historical perspective is useful here. Until the first half of the 20th Century, Catholics in America fought against the influence of Protestantism in public life by creating specifically Catholic institutions like the parochial schools, Catholic hospitals and even a Catholic response to the Masons – the Knights of Columbus. We funded our own operations. By the 1950s, wrote William Halsey, Catholic America lived in a virtual parallel universe of segregated organizations like the Catholic Sociological Association and Catholic Lawyer Guilds.
Then came the II Vatican Council, the Civil Rights Movement and the War On Poverty -- each arguing in different ways to end segregation. Conservative-turned-Progressive Garry Wills opined that rather than to perpetuate their parallel universe, Catholic America had decided public institutions should work for us as citizens, turning our tax dollars to Catholic purposes. Changes in regulations opened the way to government funding of social services and Catholics went into the streets, fighting for the poor alongside secular programs. By creating not-for-profit corporations separate from church ministry, Catholic agencies qualified for those government dollars.
Pope John Paul II and President Reagan changed the emphasis. Instead of working alongside secularists, Catholics were to assert faith premises as a condition for support of social programs. Protest replaced cooperation: The chief Catholic success was passing the Hyde
Amendment which continues to prohibit any government funds to be spent for abortions.
Under the Faith-based Initiative of the second President Bush, however, the government lifted many prohibitions on how public funds were spent by religious organizations, especially Evangelical Protestant ones. Waivers from professional credentials were provided to church workers with good intentions and only church members need be hired. In this third stage, religion was funded as a substitute for government agencies.
Despite liberals urging an end to public funding of church programs, President Obama redesigned Faith-Based Initiatives, by preferring projects that engaged multiple faith communities in a common effort. He also increased funding to Catholic Charities. But he plays no favorites: All religious organizations operating outside of the realm of ordained ministry with public funds are bound to observe norms of modern medicine about contraception, divorce, and stem cell research; they must recognize same-sex marriages as a civil right where that is law. In short, government no longer makes theological decisions.
The Obama policy suggests to me that we are in a new stage of Church-State relations. The Church will hold to its own doctrine, but it must do so in a world that is mostly non-Catholic. Catholics may have to abandon the idea that the state owes us funding for services, because such funding inevitably entails state controls. We might work from the ground-up to change public attitudes as we did with abortion. We might rethink the theological opinions that condition Catholic cooperation upon secular agreement with our doctrines (the “Hawaii Model” allows this). What we can’t do is argue that government treating everyone the same constitutes anti-Catholic discrimination.